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Short on good teachers? Raise pay

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State officials in most parts of the nation are talking about teacher shortages, teacher accountability and teacher salaries.

In light of these concerns, Les Krantz's recently published book, "Jobs Rated Almanac," teaches a useful lesson. Krantz uses statistics from telephone surveys, trade groups and the government to rank 250 occupations as either great, average or awful according to six criteria: income, stress, physical demands, growth potential, job security and work environment.

Where does public school teaching rank? No. 164, behind teacher's aide (111), janitor (154) and maid (157).

No one should be surprised that teaching is seen as the pits. After all, the income is lousy; the level of stress can endanger one's health; real growth potential is limited; unless one has a continuing contract, job security can be doubtful; and, as recent campus violence shows, the work environment can be fatal.

"Much work in this profession, such as preparing lessons, grading papers and attending meetings, is done after the school day has ended," Krantz writes. "Teachers spend long periods of time on their feet. Working with rambunctious children can be fatiguing and stressful."

Each year, more and more teachers are responding to these conditions with their feet. Indeed, they are deserting the profession for better jobs in unprecedented numbers. Add retirement to this mix and we have the makings of a long-term disaster.

Until quite recently, state lawmakers and other officials have played shell games in attempts to avoid the one step that must be taken in solving the national teacher crisis: raise teacher salaries substantially. Teacher pay was a major focus of the American Federation of Teachers convention in Philadelphia.

"It's clearly, I think, a national emergency," said Sandra Feldman, leader of the teachers federation. "We have to ask ourselves: What are our priorities here as a nation?"

This is the "national emergency" that Feldman refers to: According to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers, although first-year and average teacher pay increased more than 3 percent last year, salaries still lag behind those of comparably college-educated employees. Even worse, today's teacher salaries fall below teacher pay of 1972, when adjusted for inflation.

How can the world's most prosperous nation tolerate such sorry treatment of one of its most important assets?

The survey indicates that during 1998-99, beginning teachers earned an average of $26,639. As an average, this figure may sound fine. Keep in mind, however, that districts in states such as Mississippi and the Dakotas, pay veteran teachers less than $30,000 a year. The survey also shows that teachers who have been in the classroom for 16 years earn an average annual salary of $40,574. Again, some states fall far below this amount.

"It's just not high enough," Feldman said. "If it were, we would be able to fill all the teaching vacancies."

A New York Times analysis of the survey data indicates the following: "Comparing mid-career professionals with similar experience, teachers earn 59 percent as much as engineers and attorneys, 61 percent of the salary of computer analysts and 82 percent of accountants' pay."

The federation's rival union, the National Education Association, which held its annual convention in Chicago, also focused on salary. Sick and tired of their districts' tinkering with their pay, rank-and-file members turned their backs on top brass and defeated efforts to permit job performance evaluations in paying bonuses.

They see the bonuses as a cheap, ineffective and unfair way to pay some teachers more. "If teachers compete for bonuses, who will want to teach the poor students, the students who don't speak English well?" Barbara Kerr, a delegate from California, told the New York Times.

Another delegate, Robin Holcombe of New Jersey, had similar observations: "Do we want to send a message to state legislatures and school boards that we are willing to negotiate pay for performance? Bonus pay, merit pay and pay for performance are all the same."

I agree. Salaries should be raised — without gimmickery, without mealy-mouthed nonsense from governors and school board members. In every other profession, good people follow good money. Is teaching any different? I do not think so.

Listen to Steve Ray, a history teacher at Lincoln High School in Yonkers, N.Y. Ray is president of his local union. And, by the way, Yonkers boasts the nation's highest starting salary at $37,045, 18 percent higher than rival New York City.

"Before, if you couldn't get a job elsewhere, you came to Yonkers," he told the New York Times. "The new teachers we've been hiring over the last six years are top-quality people who look at Yonkers as somewhere they want to spend their careers."

Until Yonkers raised salaries, Yonkers' teachers left for New York City and surrounding suburban counties. Today, that trend has reversed. "For New York City experienced teachers, coming to Yonkers is a promotion," Ray said.

Many people I know like to compare teaching to other white-color jobs. I disagree with them because, as a former teacher, I still believe that teaching remains the "noblest profession." It is one of the toughest.

Teaching also is an excellent scapegoat. No other profession — Hollywood producers excepted — is so blamed for the ruination of our youngsters and larger society. The main difference between movie producers and teachers, of course, is that while producers laugh all the way to the bank for "ruining" us, many teachers, especially single ones, cry all the way to the poorhouse.

Two years ago, I interviewed Roderick McDavis, then-dean of the University of Florida College of Education. About the future of public school teaching, he said:

"From the standpoint of recruitment, we need to increase salaries. That's No. 1. Today, when high school and middle school students look at careers, they look at how much money they can earn. I think that's especially true with men. Young men tend not to look at education as a career path because they don't feel they'll be able to earn enough money to take care of a family. So, we've got to find a way to increase beginning salaries for teachers and long-term career salaries."


Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell@sptimes.com